For several decades, the impressive Canada Life Building at 330 University Avenue was one of the tallest structures in the city. The 15-storey building was constructed between 1929 and 1931, in a record time of eighteen months. The staff moved into the building on 23 March 1931. Designed by the architects Henry Sproatt and Ernest Rolph, they chose the Art Deco style. Henry Sproatt was born in Toronto and studied in Europe and New York. Partnered with various associates, he designed the Royal York Hotel and the Eaton’s College Street Store, now known as College Park.

During the late-1920s, plans were made for the intersection at Queen and University to become a grand square and traffic circle on a larger scale than even the famous Piccadilly Circus in London. It was to be named Vimy Square , to commemorate the strategic battle in April 1917, in which 3598 soldiers lost their lives. The Great Depression that descended in 1929 ended the plans for the square, and only building erected to complement the ambitious scheme was the Canada Life Building. However, the harsh economic times forced Canada Life to reduce the height of both building and its tower. Fortunately, the impressive structure stands today as a reminder of what might have been if the stock market crash had not occurred.


The Canada Life building in 1930, the tower still under constructions, with the west wing of Osgoode hall visible in the foreground. (photo from City of Toronto Archives)

When the Canada Life building opened, the public was permitted to visit the Tower Room room near the top of the tower. However, by the 1950s, as there were several buildings that were much higher, fewer people were visiting it, and the observatory was closed. Today, on the final weekend of May, during the “Doors Open Toronto”event, people can once more take the elevator to the room at the top and gaze at the magnificent views of the city. Through the years, the Tower Room has been used for receptions, and on occasion employed as a space to hold exams for actuarial students.

Above the Tower Room, in August 1951, the Canada Life Beacon commenced shining its weather-forecasting light across the downtown area. Inspired by a similar beacon in New York City, it was a system of changing lights that gave the weather forecast – green – good weather, red – cloudy weather, flashing red –rain, flashing white – snow. The information was updated four times a day and is determined from computer data.

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            Tower and beacon (left)                       Ornate east facade with Doric pilasters around entrance 


                           Impressive lobby of the Canada Life Building


       Tower Room with observation windows overlooking the city of Toronto


View looking south on University Avenue from the windows of the Tower Room


In 1939, for the first time in Canadian history, a reigning monarch visited the country. The Canada Life Assurance Company commissioned A. J. Casson, a member of the Group of Seven, to paint a canvas to commemorate the event. The painting depicts King George VI and Queen Elizabeth passing in front of the Canada Life Building, its facade decorated for the occasion. 


                                          Canada Life Building in June, 2012.

To view the Home Page for this blog:

To view previous blogs about movie houses of Toronto—historic and modern

Recent publication entitled “Toronto’s Theatres and the Golden Age of the Silver Screen,” by the author of this blog. The publication explores 50 of Toronto’s old theatres and contains over 80 archival photographs of the facades, marquees and interiors of the theatres. It relates anecdotes and stories of the author and others who experienced these grand old movie houses.  


   To place an order for this book: .

Book also available in Chapter/Indigo, the Bell Lightbox Book Store and by phoning University of Toronto Press, Distribution: 416-667-7791

Theatres Included in the Book:

Chapter One – The Early Years—Nickelodeons and the First Theatres in Toronto

Theatorium (Red Mill) Theatre—Toronto’s First Movie Experience and First Permanent Movie Theatre, Auditorium (Avenue, PIckford), Colonial Theatre (the Bay), the Photodrome, Revue Theatre, Picture Palace (Royal George), Big Nickel (National, Rio), Madison Theatre (Midtown, Capri, Eden, Bloor Cinema, Bloor Street Hot Docs), Theatre Without a Name (Pastime, Prince Edward, Fox)

Chapter Two – The Great Movie Palaces – The End of the Nickelodeons

Loew’s Yonge Street (Elgin/Winter Garden), Shea’s Hippodrome, The Allen (Tivoli), Pantages (Imperial, Imperial Six, Ed Mirvish), Loew’s Uptown

Chapter Three – Smaller Theatres in the pre-1920s and 1920s

 Oakwood, Broadway, Carlton on Parliament Street, Victory on Yonge Street (Embassy, Astor, Showcase, Federal, New Yorker, Panasonic), Allan’s Danforth (Century, Titania, Music Hall), Parkdale, Alhambra (Baronet, Eve), St. Clair, Standard (Strand, Victory, Golden Harvest), Palace, Bedford (Park), Hudson (Mount Pleasant), Belsize (Crest, Regent), Runnymede

Chapter Four – Theatres During the 1930s, the Great Depression

Grant ,Hollywood, Oriole (Cinema, International Cinema), Eglinton, Casino, Radio City, Paramount, Scarboro, Paradise (Eve’s Paradise), State (Bloordale), Colony, Bellevue (Lux, Elektra, Lido), Kingsway, Pylon (Royal, Golden Princess), Metro

Chapter Five – Theatres in the 1940s – The Second World War and the Post-War Years

University, Odeon Fairlawn, Vaughan, Odeon Danforth, Glendale, Odeon Hyland, Nortown, Willow, Downtown, Odeon Carlton, Donlands, Biltmore, Odeon Humber, Town Cinema

Chapter Six – The 1950s Theatres

Savoy (Coronet), Westwood

Chapter Seven – Cineplex and Multi-screen Complexes

Cineplex Eaton Centre, Cineplex Odeon Varsity, Scotiabank Cineplex, Dundas Square Cineplex, The Bell Lightbox (TIFF)

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